Category Archives: Garden

Bird Nerd part 3: feeding habits

As I mentioned in my last bird nerd post, I have quite a lot of data on the birds that visit my garden, and am keen to hear ideas for questions I could look at with it. Someone suggested that it might be worth looking at whether birds with similar feeding habits have similar patterns of visits over the year. So I gave it a go.

First I tried to work out how I could group my avian visitors, and settled on the following categories:

  • those that feed from the seed feeder (house sparrows, great tits, chaffinches)
  • those that feed from the suet pellet feeder (blue tits, coal tits, black caps, long-tailed tits)
  • those that eat seed from the table (wood pigeons, collared doves, feral pigeons)
  • those that eat suet pellets or mealworms from the table (starlings, magpies, jackdaws, crows)
  • those that feed from the ground / other sources (blackbirds, song thrushes, pied wagtails, wren, dunnock, robin)

Of course there is a certain amount of overlap. For example, sparrows and bluetits will feed from both the seed feeder and suet pellet feeder, but do seem to have preferences.

I then created some simple line charts, using the average number of each species seen per observation day for each month of the year, based on data from June 2012 – May 2013. Here are the charts.

seed

suettableseed  tablesuetground

For most of them it looks like the average number seen per observation day is independent of feeding habits. But there may be some relationship for those that feed from the ground or suet pellets or mealworms from the table.

The patterns are unlikely to be driven by changes in the availability of food in my garden, as this is broadly steady throughout the year. However it could be linked to the availability of other food sources beyond my garden. It may be that birds in this category are more influenced by the weather than the other categories, so fluctuations are more in line with each other.

It’s not conclusive evidence, but it’s an interesting hypothesis. When I have time I will use data from the whole 3 years to draw up scatter plots for pairs of birds whose average numbers seem correlated. Can you think of other ways I should test for a relationship? Are there any other questions you think I should look at?

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Top 10 Christmas Present Ideas for Wildlife Enthusiasts

The wonderful Transition Dorking’s Golden Ticket event has got me thinking about Christmas shopping. Here’s a list of my top 10 present ideas for the wildlife enthusiast in your life. Some of them I already have, so can vouch for their brilliance. Others are things I’ve had an eye on for a while, hint, hint!

1) Swiss Army Champ knife: no nature explorer should be without a Swiss Army knife, and this one is all singing, all dancing. I’ve had mine for a couple of years, and can vouch for its robustness and versatility. My one has sawn off tree branches, cut wire to repair nest boxes, removed a tick from a dormouse, prised open paint tins, helped identify which small creatures have opened hazel nuts and performed numerous other essential tasks. My superhero name would be Swiss Army Wife. The only thing that could improve it would be a torch (which I’ve added to mine via the ring). It’s comforting knowing that, should I ever have to remove a stone from a horses hoof, I’m well equipped. Don’t just take my word for it – Simon King swears by his too!

2) Motion-triggered infrared trail camera – this one’s a bit pricier, but very exciting. We didn’t know we had hedgehogs or foxes visiting our garden until we got one of these. Most can be set to take stills or film, and should have a way of adjusting the focus.

3) Animal tracks kit – this is marketed as a stocking filler for kids, but who doesn’t secretly yearn to be a wildlife Sherlock Holmes? It’s on my Christmas list!

4) Camera bird box – give your loved one the tools to run their own Springwatch. We’ve been very impressed with the quality of the camera on ours, and while our bluetits have yet to get their youngsters as far as fledging, it’s still been fascinating to follow their progress each day. Plus when the nest box is not in use you can use the camera for other projects.

5) Mammal tunnel – more wildlife detective gear! Following on the theme of number 3, this simple set-up can help reveal which mammals make use of your garden. I think it would be a good project to do with a child (although don’t expect to find hedgehogs in winter!) or the young at heart. I enjoyed trying ours out, and if your loved one already has a bird box camera it can easily be rigged up (using gaffer tape) in the tunnel.

6) Paramo waterproof trousers – another expensive one, I’m afraid. But for anyone who spends a lot of time out in the Great British weather, these are an excellent choice. Not only do they keep the water out, but they are breathable and well ventilated, so you don’t end up with steamy legs. And they are comfortable enough to wear as normal trousers (rather than over-trousers), so you can just put them on before you set off, and not have to wrestle to get them on over your boots half way up a cliff when it starts raining. Having dry legs makes the outdoors a lot pleasanter on a rainy day.

7) Wildlife books – For the stormy days when not even good waterproofs are enough to persuade you away from the fire, a good selection of wildlife books is essential. General guides are useful for identifying animals, or working out where to see them. As a good, concise guide with plenty of pictures I would recommend the Collins Complete Guide to British Animals For a more weighty tome filled with high quality scholarship Mammals of the British Isles can’t be beaten. Hugh Warwick’s The Beauty in the Beast is an inspiring read, and the British Natural History series is good. On my Christmas list this year is Badgerlands by Patrick Barkham and the new edition of Otters by Paul Chanin.

8) Camera bird feeding station – If your loved one already has a bird box camera, this feeding station can make use of the camera when it’s not spring. I haven’t tried it, but it’s on my list.

9) A hand lens (or magnifying glass) – Hand lenses are very useful for examining things close up. It can help you distinguish what sort of mouse has been nibbling a nut, whose fur has been caught on barbed wire, and give you a better view into the world of insects. Another important tool in the wildlife detective’s kit. Just the pipe and deerstalker hat to go!

10) Courses – there’s so much to learn about wildlife, and good as books and films may be, they can’t rival getting out in the wild with an expert. I’ve been on lots run by Surrey Wildlife Trust and can recommend them. I’ve also had a couple of very enjoyable photography days at the British Wildlife Centre. Other Wildlife Trusts, the PTES, the Mammal Society and the Field Studies Council all run a selection as well – have a look to see if there are any that might inform and inspire your loved one.

I hope this list provides a bit of inspiration. What would you have on your list of gift ideas for wildlife lovers?

Creating a mini wildflower meadow

Being British I’m partial to a well kept lawn – I like playing croquet, and while I’ve yet to try bowls, I could see it being my sort of sport in a few years time. But while a lush carpet of green has it’s appeal, an untidy jumble of wildflowers is more my style, and requires a lot less effort than keeping the lawn perfect. Establishing a wildflower meadow is not just an aesthetic winner – having a variety of native flowers can attract lots of insects, while the seeds can attract birds like goldfinches. Having a variety of lengths of grass can provide shelter for a whole host of creatures.

So when thinking about how to make our garden a wildlife haven, creating some kind of wildflower meadow was high up the list of things to do. Our garden is pretty small, with only around 5m by 4m of lawn in the first place. Since Dr C wouldn’t allow me to turn all of that into meadow, we settled on around half.

We had a bit of a head start in creating a wildflower meadow as our lawn was not ‘perfect’ to start with. In summer there were buttercups (or a flower that looks like buttercups) that left to their own devices would happily take over. There were also (far too) many dandelions (although I’m not their biggest fan). So our first step was to let the grass and flowers grow uncut in that section of the garden, and let the buttercups expand.

Wildflowers often prefer poor soils, so grasses don’t out compete them. For a small section of the mini meadow we took off a layer of turf, and sowed a mix of wildflower seeds. You can buy ready-mixed selections from any garden centre, which is what we did. But if you’re up for a bit more research you could investigate which wildflowers are found naturally in your local area, and choose a selection based on that. There are a number of specialist suppliers whose websites provide helpful information about the range of native wildflowers and how to establish a meadow.

Being impatient (or as a kind of experiment, if you choose to put a more charitable interpretation on it), I also ordered a big batch of wildflower plug plants, and planted those in the rest of the meadow area.

Not being an expert in flowers, I’m afraid I don’t know the names of all the flowers we have in the meadow. To my shame, I haven’t even counted how many different sorts. What I can say is there are quite a few different species, which means that as soon as one type stops flowering another takes over. It’s only in the last few weeks that we no longer have any flowers in bloom in the meadow.

Encouragingly, this year we still have a good variety of wildflowers, despite not sowing or planting any new ones this year. Some of them are biennials that have survived from last year, while others seem to have seeded themselves from last year’s plants.

The plants grown from seeds seem to have done better than the plug plants, although some of them are still around. Next year I might try and seed another patch with more different types, for even more variety. But hopefully the meadow will, with minimal maintenance, keep renewing itself each year.

While digging up the turf and sowing / planting took a bit of work, the meadow is quite low maintenance (compared to a lawn). In the first year we had to water the new plants while they established themselves, but this year we haven’t had to do any watering, despite the dry summer. We ‘mow’ it with shears twice a year, and apart from that we leave it to its own devices.

The insects seem to love it, and goldfinches have fed from the seeds of some of the flowers, which is very satisfying. It’s also nice to see the tunnel the hedgehogs have created through it.

So if you’re looking for an excuse to be a lazy wildlife gardener, I would recommend creating a mini meadow.

Maybe next year I’ll try and work out which flowers and creatures live in our mini meadow!

Hedgehogs and bonfires

Hedgehog

Piles of logs make an excellent home for many animals, including hedgehogs. They are a great way of attracting wildlife to your garden. Unfortunately, if you’re a hedgehog it’s rather difficult to distinguish between a nice safe log-pile to hibernate in, and one that is about to become a bonfire. If you’re having a bonfire this year, build it at the last minute or check it thoroughly before lighting to make sure no hedgehogs get a nasty surprise.

And do consider creating a permanent log pile in a quiet corner.

Enjoy the fireworks!

Bird nerd part 2: summary stats

So, having collected all this lovely data, what do I know about the birds that visit my garden? Here are some summary stats from the last three years of data collection.

  • In 2010-11 I saw on average 7 different species per observation day. In 2011-12 this went down to 6, and in 2012-13 it went up to 8.
  • In 2010-11 I saw on average 14 individual birds per observation day. In 2011-12 that went down to 12, and in 2012-13 it went up to 15.
  • These averages hide quite a bit of seasonal variation: September is generally pretty quiet, while the bird table is unsurprisingly busy in December and January.
  • The most regular avian visitors to the garden were: bluetits in 2010-11, being seen on 55 out of 64 observation days, starlings in 2011-12, being seen on 35 out of 43 observation days, and woodpigeons in 2012-13, with only one observation day out of 44 when they didn’t make an appearance.
  • The most numerous visitors to the garden were starlings by far (which won’t surprise anyone who has seen hoardes of them descend on a bird table), although in the last year house sparrows have almost managed to catch them up.

    Bluetit
    Bluetit gathering nesting material

Changes in which species visit over time

As I mentioned in the first ‘Bird nerd’ post, altogether I’ve seen 26 different species of bird in the garden, although never all in the same year. In 2010-11 I saw blackcaps on 15 observation days (in the winter), but only once in 2011-12 and once in August 2012-13 (which is a shame, as they are pretty birds).

There have been no records of jays since 2010-11, but even then they were not frequent visitors. Other birds missing in 2012-13 that I have seen (infrequently) in other years include crows, greenfinches and siskins.

On the bright side, in 2012-13 I saw chaffinches and some kind of warbler for the first time. It’s quite encouraging that 4 years after moving here we’re still spotting new species.

Future analysis to be done

The few stats I’ve presented here are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I could examine from my data. One question I would like to look at is how the weather affects bird numbers. I’ve got very basic data on weather for most observation days, but only as far as whether it was sunny, snowy, rainy or overcast. Since we had solar panels installed last June I now have data on sunlight. My theory is we get more bird visits on sunny days than rainy or overcast (controlling for the month of the year), but we’ll see if the data supports that…

Let me know if there are any other questions you would like me to look at – for example, if you’re interested in a particular species or comparison over time…

Amateur ecology

Over the last few years I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading about wildlife, as well as going on courses. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had is there’s so much we don’t know, even about some of our most familiar species. For example, we don’t really know what water voles do all winter, or where basking sharks go. Linked to the realisation of how much we don’t know about our wildlife, is the discovery that normal people, like you and me, can make a meaningful contribution to scientific research about wildlife.

The other day I read, in Hugh Warwick’s book The Beauty in the Beast, about Denis Summers-Smith. It was inspirational. Denis is a mechanical engineer and an amateur birdwatcher, who has written five books and over forty scientific papers on the house sparrow. He has discovered many things about house sparrows, including that they mate for life. And all this has been done in his spare time…

For those of us not quite ready to write a book based on our own discoveries, there are many citizen science projects that rely on the contributions of hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers to gather data from across the country. The commitment and expertise involved varies considerably.

For example, each year in January the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch. Almost 590,000 people took part in it in 2013. This involves spending an hour counting the different types of birds that come into your garden on a specific weekend. From this, they can analyse the data from across the country, and spot any significant changes in the bird population. This is important to inform conservation work.

Many other organisations run similar surveys. This BBC Nature article contains a good list.

At the other end of the spectrum, the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme is rather more indepth, requiring trained and licensed volunteers to carry out box checks each month (except over winter). The data collected from this programme is providing new insights into these lovely creatures. At a dormouse conference I attended a couple of years ago, it was very exciting to hear scientific presentations based on data that I helped (in a very small way) to collect. We now know much more about this species than we did before the programme started.

Like many girls of my generation, I gave up studying science after I finished my GCSEs, despite getting my best grades in science and maths. I didn’t think science was for me. I didn’t realise how exciting science could be, and the range of things it could involve. It has been thrilling to learn, somewhat belatedly, that science is for me, and I can contribute to finding answers to questions about our native wildlife. These answers may help us better protect our beautiful and vulnerable creatures, for this generation and those to come.

House sparrow explosion

House sparrows have been fairly regular visitors to our garden. We see them all year round, with an average number of 3 per observation day. But in the last few weeks the sparrow population in our garden seems to have exploded. Before September this year, the most we’ve seen at one time was 9. Now there are more than I can count (they keep moving!).

They’ve been hanging around our garden quite a bit, and getting through the bird seed faster than I’ve ever seen before. I’ve no idea why we have had the sudden increase. In previous years there hasn’t been a large increase in numbers around this time of year.  Perhaps they’ve had a particularly good breeding year?

They’re not the most spectacular of birds, but it’s great to see so many of them, as their numbers have plummeted in recent years. In the 1970s there were around 12 million pairs in the UK. Now there are between 6-7 million pairs. The good news is, data from the British Trust for Ornithology suggests that the decline has stabilised. Now we just need to work out how to help them recover.

Earlier this year we installed a sparrow terrace (to try and tempt them away from our gutters as a nest site). The boxes weren’t used this year, but hopefully some of our new visitors will decide they’re a good nest spot for next year. I’ll let you know!

Have you noticed anything similar in your garden?

How to build a mini pond

Frog
Frog

As a kid, I loved the pond in my parents’ garden. It was brimming with frogs and newts (and leeches). My brother and I spent many happy hours catching frogs (the tiny, just-got-legs ones were the easiest to catch, and the cutest – poor little froggies being chased by curious kids). So when I finally got a garden of my own, I was determined to build one.

Building a pond is a great way of increasing the value of your garden to wildlife. It attracts invertebrates, amphibians (who eat slugs – horay!), and can be a vital water source for birds and mammals if it’s designed well. As I mentioned in my first post, our garden is rather small, and since Dr C objected to me turning the whole lawn into a pond, I had to content myself with a mini-pond. But even a tiny pond can be really valuable to wildlife.

Living in England’s equivalent to the Champagne region, the obvious container for our pond was half an old wine barrel, obtained from our local vineyard. Old tin baths, belfast sinks and other similar containers can also make good mini-ponds.

To make it easier for hedgehogs and frogs to access, we decided to recess it, so the top was about level with the decking. Dr C valiantly got on with the digging while I tried to clean up the barrel. After several scrub-outs, the water was still turning wine red, so as we didn’t want drunk frogs, we decided to line it with pond liner.

Once the pond was in place, we used old bricks and stones to create different levels within the pond. This is important so frogs and hedgehogs can easily climb out, and birds have a shallow bit to bathe in. When we had the landscaping sorted, we put the pond liner over the top and stapled the edges to the top of the barrel so they didn’t move.

Creating different levels in the pond
Creating different levels in the pond

We added a couple of handfuls of pond compost, and then filled it with water from our water butt (if you’re using tap water, you have to let it rest for 24 hours so all the chlorine can evaporate off, before adding any plants or creatures).

Picking plants for a small pond can be a bit of a challenge, as you need to find something that won’t spread too much. We managed to find a dwarf water lily for surface cover (most water lilies like to be planted quite deep), and then picked a couple of native oxygenating plants plus a small iris for the edge. Waterside Nursery have a good range of wildlife friendly pond plants.

Newly planted pond

Newly planted pond

I’ll save telling you how the pond has fared for another day, but here’s a sneak preview…

The mini pond
The mini pond

If you’re keen to have a go at creating your own pond, the RSPB provide some good guidance. Waterside Nursery’s website also contains lots of useful advice about building a wildlife pond and picking the right plants.

Welcome to the Wild South!

To start my blog, I thought maybe an introduction to my wildlife garden might be in order. We (Dr C, Fat Cat and I) live in a small town, and have a small garden (about 7.5m by 7.5m). Since we moved in (back in 2009) we’ve been gradually trying to turn it into a haven for bugs, birds and other beasts, and have had more success than I anticipated.

The RSPB have some brilliant resources for making homes for wildlife, and many of the ideas we’ve used have come from that.

When we moved in, the garden had a couple of decked areas, a lawn, a couple of borders and a small box hedge. A rampant buddleia has been an attraction for butterflies, bees and birds. Since then we’ve added a bird feeding station, a barrel pond, a small area of meadow, a hedgehog house, birdboxes, some small trees in pots, a wood pile, a raised vegetable bed, an insect log, a bird bath, and probably some more things I’ve forgotten.

Since then we’ve seen 25 species of bird in the garden, along with hedgehogs, a fox, mice, a slow worm, frogs, various pond life and numerous insect species. It’s been really satisfying seeing how quickly wildlife starts to make use of the things we’ve provided. Watching the garden has been a real source of pleasure to me, and I’ve learnt a lot along the way.

The meadow
The meadow
Raised bed & buddleia
Raised bed & buddleia
The mini pond
The mini pond
Bird feeding station
Bird feeding station